Reflections on Christian-Muslim Dialogue

I was talking with the editor of the Urdu Journal who was also a scholar at the Islamic Research Institute in Islamabad, Pakistan. “What is the chief purpose of man?” he asked. (He was not aware of inclusive language.) Being a Presbyterian who still remembered at least the first question of the Shorter Catechism, I responded, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever” as though I had just thought of it. He then asked, “What does it mean? May we meet each week to discuss it—you as a Christian and I as a Muslim?” Thus began my early steps in Christian-Muslim dialogue as I started as a new missionary (called a “fraternal worker”) on the staff of the newly founded Christian Study Centre in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

Sometime later a younger scholar from the Islamic Research Institute asked me if I would read and critique a paper about his faith. When I asked why he had not chosen one of his Muslim colleagues at the Institute to do this, he said, “Christians are fairer.” As I read his description of God, he said, “God is like a father. He may punish me, but he does so because he loves me.” However, the Qur’an denies that God is a father. Thus I learned two of my early lessons about dialogue. Muslims want above all else a fair evaluation of their faith, and in dialogue we find that their real beliefs do not always parrot the Islam of the textbooks. These early steps would lead to collaboration with colleagues at Fuller in considering the challenges Evangelicals encounter as they seek to blend a desire to dialogue for mutual understanding with a desire to bear witness to Christ.


The Challenge of Muslim-Christian Dialogue

The challenge is, through dialogue and studying each other’s Scriptures, to determine where Muslims and Christians agree and can express a common witness and where we disagree and, through love of the other, yearn to share our faith in Christ. Our common ground includes these points:

  • We both worship the One God but understand some significant things about him differently, for example, the type of unity (Qur’an 4:17; Gal. 3:20; Matt. 28:19) and whether God loves sinners (Qur’an 3:31-32; 1 John 1:14).
  • We honor Jesus and use some of the same descriptors of him, even though we may mean different things by some of them—e.g., the word of God (Qur’an 3:45; John 1:14).
  • We agree on humans as stewards of God on earth (khalifa) under God and over creation (Qur’an 2:30; Gen. 1:26–28).
  • We have similar understandings of God’s law,1 but differ on its ability to transform society (Qur’an 46:12; Rom. 7:18–8:4).
  • We have similar views of the importance of faith and works but differ on their respective roles in salvation (Qur’an 19:60; Eph. 2:8–10).
  • We are both enjoined to invite to what is good and forbid what is wrong (Qur’an 3:104; Gal. 5:16–23).

We also have many common but, at times, competing claims. Both are missionary religions with a message for all people:

  • Qur’an 25:1, “Blessed is he who has sent down the criterion (furqan) [for judging right and wrong] upon his servant so that he may be the warner to all beings.”
  • Qur’an 38:87, “This is no less than a reminder to [all] the worlds.”
  • Qur’an 3:20, “Say to the People of the Book [Jews and Christians] and to those who are unlearned [pagan Bedouins], ‘Do you also submit yourselves (aslamtum)?’ If they do, they are in right guidance, but if they turn back, your duty is to convey the message.”
  • John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Both claim the final messenger:

  • Qur’an 33:40, “Muhammad . . . is the seal of the Prophets.”
  • Hebrews 1:1–2, “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by his Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things.”

Both groups of followers are to be witnesses:

  • Qur’an 2:143, “Thus have we made of you a community justly balanced that you might be witnesses.”
  • Acts 1:8, “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”

Both make apparently exclusive claims for their message, although some Muslims and Christians interpret the passages in less exclusive ways:

  • Qur’an 3:85, “If anyone desires a religion other than Islam [or submission], never will it be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost” (cf. v. 19).

Note that the exclusiveness is determined by whether the Arabic word islam in this context describes a distinct religion or a general response of submission to God, as when it is used of Jesus’ disciples (Qur’an 3:52; 5:111–112). And Arabic does not have capital letters, which could help us determine the precise meaning.

  • John 14:6, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes unto the Father but by me.”
  • Acts 4:12, “And there is salvation in no one else for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Some Christians would say that it is possible to affirm these verses and still trust, or hope, that God might save others through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus even though they do not clearly understand him, even as various Old Testament personages through their faith are included in heaven (Heb. 11:16–40).

Both are called to witness in a gracious way:

  • Qur’an 16:125, “Invite to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and good exhortation and dispute with them with what is better [or in a better way].”
  • Qur’an 29:46, “Dispute not with the People of the Book except with what is better [or in a better way].”
  • 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you with gentleness and respect.

These verses bring out the importance of gracious witness for both faiths even though the importance of learning from each other first may require times when we postpone more overt expressions of our witness to another time or context.

Scholars Committed to Dialogue

Fuller is involved in a range of activities with Muslim scholars and clerics “to create and sustain a civil society that exemplifies the concept of convicted civility,” says School of Intercultural Studies [SIS] Dean C. Douglas McConnell. In order to “cross the barriers that keep people from seeing, hearing, and believing the gospel,” the school integrates the social sciences with historical, theological, and biblical studies. The dialogue it fosters is “not a departure from our evangelical calling,” urges McConnell, “but rather an essential tool in it.” In the SIS, Evelyne Reisacher and Martin Accad work alongside McConnell and Dudley Woodberry in the arena of Islamic studies, carrying on and furthering Woodberry’s groundbreaking work.

Evelyne ReisacherEvelyne Reisacher is assistant professor of Islamic studies and intercultural relations whose research involves exploring gender issues in Islam, Muslim-Christian relations, world religions and affect regulation across cultures. Reisacher worked for twenty years at L’Ami in France, facilitating the relationship between churches and North African immigrants and developing courses, teaching tools, and seminars for sharing the gospel cross-culturally. She has trained Christian leaders and church members in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and South East Asia, is widely published on gender issues in Islam and Muslim-Christian relations.

Martin AccadMartin Accad is associate professor of Islamic studies [as of 2010] and also directs the Institute of Middle East Studies at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in his native Lebanon. In addition to the on-campus courses he teaches, Accad leads an annual five-week practicum in Lebanon for Fuller students, involving learning about Islam and Middle-Eastern cultures, interfaith encounters, practical ministry among different social groups, and Arabic language learning. Fluent in English, French, and Arabic, Accad has taught at seminaries in Egypt, Lebanon, and the United States. He has also given lectures at multiple international symposia, often on the history of interactions between Muslim and Christian thinkers.

Activities of Fuller Faculty and Students before 9/11

The human resources we have at Fuller are considerable. Glen Stassen, David Augsburger, and Wilbert Shenk are well known for their activities and writings in the cause of peace. Martin Accad lives most of the year amid the religious tensions of Beirut, Lebanon, where he co-sponsors yearly dialogues between Muslims and Christians. Evelyn Reisacher comes from, and frequently returns to, work with Muslims and Christians in France and North Africa where she has done research on what helps people from different ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds bond with each other.

My background as a student in Lebanon, a researcher and trainer in Pakistan, and a pastor in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia gave many opportunities for both formal and informal dialogue with Muslims. These faculty involvements are supplemented considerably by the many students we have from Muslim-majority countries.

On the local level, we went with our students regularly to visit mosques in order to learn from Muslims firsthand. On the national level I was privileged to do such things as work in a “Christian-Muslim Consultations on Religious Freedom” sponsored by the World Council of Churches at Hartford Seminary in 1999, where we developed a code of ethics for our encounters. Also M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, invited ten of us Christians to join with ten Muslims and ten Jews to live together for a number of days in New Orleans and work on major conflicts between our communities.

On the international level, in 2001 Joseph Cumming and I were invited by the theology faculty of Samsun University in Turkey to a Muslim-Christian consultation on peace. The papers were subsequently published in Muslim and Christian Reflections on Peace: Divine and Human Dimensions,2 along with a Turkish edition.


Post 9/11 at Fuller

After 9/11 my class in Current Trends in Islam jumped up to 135 students including the chair of the Shura Council for the 68 Islamic centers in Southern California. Throughout the course he helped us understand local Muslim attitudes.

A grant from the U.S. Department of Justice between 2003 and 2006 made it possible for us to do many things in a Conflict Transformation Program chaired by David Augsburger and involving faculty and students from all three schools. On the local level we met monthly with local Muslim leaders and on the national level we formed a partnership with the Salaam Institute for Peace and Justice at the American University in Washington, DC. With the latter, and in cooperation with the Islamic Society of North America, we developed a manual—Muslim and Christian Conversations for Peace—which was used in conferences where members of a church and a mosque would join together for a weekend. Through consultations both in Pasadena and the Washington area, we published a volume entitled Peace-Building By, Between, and Beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians.3 Fuller student papers in turn were published in Resources for Peacemaking in Muslim-Christian Relations.4

Fuller personnel have been active in subsequent dialogues. When in October of 2007, 138 Muslim leaders from around the world invited Christian leaders to have discussions based on “A Common Word” on loving God and loving neighbor, many Christians responded. As a result, conferences of Muslims and Christians were held at Yale, Cambridge, and Georgetown universities. The papers from Yale, which included one by Martin Accad, were published under the title A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor and edited by Miroslav Volf (a former Fuller student and faculty member), Ghazi bin Muhammed, and Melissa Yarrington (a current Fuller SIS doctoral student).5 And much of the dynamism behind it was that of former Fuller student and part-time faculty member Joseph Cumming.

International Muslim and Evangelical consultations have also continued. The third of these was hosted by Fuller a year ago. Students too have been active, among them Jake Diliberto, who recently interacted with some Taliban leaders on a peace mission to Afghanistan.

Recently, when I was a delegate to the third of the Common Word consultations, which was at Georgetown University, a young Muslim and a Christian girl got in the line to ask questions at the mike. They held hands and said, “We are concerned for each other. What are you going to do so we can share our faith with each other?” The answer remains with us.

1. See e.g. Robert Roberts, The Social Laws of the Qoran (London: Williams and Norgate, 1925).
2. Edited by J. Dudley Woodberry, Osman Zumrut, and Mustafa Koylu. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2005.
3. Edited by Abu-Nimer and David Augsburger. Lanham. MD: Lexington Books, 2007.
4. Edited by J. D. Woodberry and Robin Basselin. Pasadena: Fuller Seminary Press, 2006.
5. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2010, “Fuller in Dialogue: Engaging the ‘Other’ with Civility.”